Let’s Talk about My New Book, Part One

Dead ExtraWe’re still about three months away from the release date, but I’m already so excited about my new novel that I’m having trouble thinking about anything else. When someone asks me how I’m doing, my first thought is, Great! I have a new novel coming out! I think it’s the best thing I’ve written! I almost always contain myself and say, “Good. How are you?” Almost always.

I want to talk a little about the new one here, though. It’s a crime novel titled Dead Extra. It’s set in Los Angeles in the 1940s. One of the protagonists is Jack Chesley, a veteran who returns from a German POW camp to find his wife dead and his wife’s twin convinced the death was murder. It sounds like a common trope, I know. Hopefully, I changed things up enough to that Jack isn’t common. He’s not your typical Sam Spade/Philip Marlowe tough guy detective, for one thing. For the other thing, he’s inspired by a real man.

My father is the youngest of seven kids. The oldest, born 21 years before my dad, was my Uncle Jack. Jack’s middle name was Chesley. I was close with my Uncle Jack for the final fifteen or so years of his life. This started when I was about 13. He’d come down to Florida. I’d take him fishing. He’d take me on drives around town. We’d talk a lot.

As I got older, Uncle Jack opened up to me more and more. He told me stories about his father, my grandfather, who’d died when my dad was a little kid. The old man, as Jack called him, was brutal. A hired thug. A gunman. A killer. And, though Jack didn’t put it in these terms, the old man was horribly abusive to Jack. Jack got away from the old man first by joining the NYPD, then by going off to fight in World War II. His plane was shot down in western Germany. He parachuted out, survived behind enemy lines for a bit, and ended up in a German POW camp. While he was there, his father and his wife both died. When he returned, he got mixed up with his wife’s twin sister.

I took a bunch of these things from my uncle’s life and used them for my novel: his name, some of his war stories, the broad strokes of his relationships with his father, his wife, and his wife’s twin sister. Mostly what I tried to borrow from him was his complexity.

When I got to know him, Jack was in his sixties. He was a recovering alcoholic, a retired cop, a father and grandfather, and just about the sweetest guy I’ve ever known. What also came out in our conversations was that he’d killed people. A few during the war. Maybe a few while he was on the force. I could never reconcile this in my mind. How could you be all these things? How can you be a killer and a kind, generous, thoughtful uncle? How can a young man go through all that Jack went through and emerge whole on the other side?

I don’t know that anyone buy Uncle Jack can answer those questions. I developed the character of Jack Chesley to explore some of these questions and find ways to reconcile some of these things in my mind.


Los Angeles Review of Books

Candelas Front 2

Steph Cha recently interviewed me for the Los Angeles Review of Books. It was refreshing to work with Steph. Almost everyone else wanted to talk about the ukulele aspect of my books, which makes sense. The work “ukulele” is in the title. I talk about ukuleles a lot. I even have a picture of a uke on this post. Still, the books isn’t really about ukuleles. It’s about writers. Steph picked up on that and wanted to talk about the writers and the stories behind the stories. I think it came out really well.

You can read the interview here.

While I’m at it, I’ll point out that Steph Cha is a pretty badass noir writer herself. Check out her Juniper Song series, starting with Follow Her Home.

The Mexican Break-Up

Illustration from Razorcake #44 by Brad Beshaw

Illustration from Razorcake #44 by Brad Beshaw

Mexico is nothing like I expected it to be. I had a collage in my head of Mexico, pasted together with images of Zapatistas in Chiapas; Jack Kerouac sweating out dysentery in a Mexico City hospital; Jessica Abel trying to fuse back her identity in La Perdida; various PBS documentaries about U.S. corporations blazing a trail of toxic waste and labor outrages across the Mexican desert; and soap operas on Univision that I can only understand about every third word of. So I guess that’s what I expected to find: revolutionaries, artists, hipsters, corrupt businessmen, desperate poverty, and full-figured women with generous displays of cleavage. And, in a sense, I’m sure all of that is here; it’s just not front and center.

So what is front and center? Wine country.

I didn’t even know Mexico had wine country until Jim and Nuvia decided to get married down here. Now, I’m three days deep into it.

The wedding is over. I remember it. I remember the conversations I had and the last drink I ordered and the ride home and going to bed. Nothing too crazy. If, ten years ago, you told me that Jim Ruland was getting married and having an open whiskey bar, I would’ve counted on drinking way too much, sliding into blackout, waking up the next morning not sure how I got home, and wincing when I heard stories about how I made an ass out of myself and generally ruined the festivities. Now, I make a rule of not drinking whiskey like that and definitely not drinking whiskey when Jim Ruland is around. So here it is, the morning after his wedding, and I’m feeling fine. Healthy. I woke up early. I had a glass of Mexican tap water already and even that isn’t bringing me down. It’s time to get to the matter at hand.

I grab my book and a chair and head out to the balcony. It’s a little chilly out here. I’m a couple thousand feet above sea level. The mist from the Pacific Ocean forms into a cloud, drifts east for several miles, and settles in this valley. The mountains are completely engulfed in fog. The grapevines below drip with dew. It’s May in Mexico, I’m wearing jeans and a hoodie, and I’m still a little cold. I don’t pay much attention to this, though, because I’m at the end of a long journey here.

My book is in my lap. Really, at this point, it’s a manuscript. It’s called Train Wreck Girl. I printed it out a few days ago. I punched three holes in each sheet of paper and stuck them in a three-ring binder. On the drive down and during lulls between wedding parties, I’ve been reading back through it. I’ve made little notes, added small paragraphs here and there, and addressed issues that my editor asked me to address. I’m down to the last few pages and it occurs to me that this is it. When I type these changes into my computer, the novel is done. Done done. The changes I make this time are the last changes I’ll make to this book. After this, it goes to the publisher, to the printer, and to bookstores. After this, it’s fixed, set in type. It no longer belongs to me. It belongs to the reader. Is this a scary feeling? Yes. Is it a great feeling nonetheless?


Patricia Geary once told me that writing a novel is like getting involved in a long-term relationship with someone. Writing a short story is like having a one-night stand: it’s fun and wild and you are emotionally invested, just not that much. Writing a novel, though, is agreeing to get serious with that person. You’re going to start dating regularly. It’ll be fun and exciting. Pretty soon, it’ll start absorbing all your time and thoughts. It’ll get intense. You’ll wonder what it is, exactly, that you’re doing. You’ll wonder if it’s worth it. You’ll go through rough patches that you need to work on. You might even break up for a while. But there’ll be something there that you just can’t walk away from. You’ll go back to it, again and again, it doesn’t matter how many times and how much it consumes you. You’ll make it work.

The difference is, when you get involved with a person long-term, there’s a chance that you can make it last for the rest of your life. With a novel, sooner or later, you have to break up with it. So that’s why I brought this novel down to Mexico with me: to tell her, “I think I gave you all I could, but we’ve gone as far as we can together. It’s time for you start spending time in other people’s imaginations.”

More images flash through my mind. I first started flirting with her back in 1999. I was working as a construction superintendent, spending huge chunks of my day driving from job site to job site, dealing with the stress of work by losing myself in daydreams about barely-formed characters. As those daydreams increased, I realized that things were getting serious. Something needed to be done.

In February of 2000, I quit my job, started teaching part-time at the local community college, did some freelance tractor work when it was looking like I wouldn’t make rent, and spent five or six hours a day for about six months typing away. I wasn’t sure where the novel would go, but I let it do its thing.

I was surfing a lot in those days, so the ocean seeped its way into the novel. I rode my bike most places around town, so the main character got a bicycle and started riding. I read a lot of crime novels—Raymond Chandler, Jim Thompson, Dashiell Hammett, Chester Himes—so a novel about sunny Cocoa Beach adopted some noir elements.

One night, I’d been writing until about two in the morning when I reached a point where I couldn’t go on and I couldn’t sleep. I decided to hop on my skateboard and ride around the neighborhood until I was tired enough to go to bed. I kicked around the vacant streets for a while, full moon shining down on the warm summer night. A rental sedan pulled up next to me. A middle-aged businessman rolled down his window. He was drunk. Clearly. He asked me if there were any hot spots to check out in Cocoa Beach.

“It’s two-thirty in the morning,” I told him. “Everything’s closed.”

“What about women?” he asked.

“What about them?”

“Do you know where I could find any?”

I realized that, in his booze-addled mind, he thought perhaps he’d run into a skateboarding pimp. I told him, “Yeah. What you want to do is go home, sober up, go to work tomorrow, and ask out the woman in the office who you’ve had a crush on for the last six months.”

The guy told me to fuck off and drove away. I went back to riding around the vacant streets, wondering if a skateboarding pimp would make a cameo in the novel.

He didn’t.


In late 2000, I finished writing the novel. I titled it Crazy Broads and Dead People. I proudly printed up all 350 pages of it, put it in a three ring binder, and read the complete draft for the first time. When I was finished, I was struck with the realization that this novel—for which I’d quit my job, on which I’d spent several months working like mad—completely sucked. I mean, it sucked bad. I almost deleted it. That might not have been a bad thing.

I spent the next few years trying to fix it. During that time, I did other things. I had a bunch of one-night stands with short stories. I wrote enough of those to put out two short story collections. I also helped found this here magazine. And in the midst of it all, somewhere in late 2003, I made the executive decision that Crazy Broads and Dead People was bullshit and we were broken up for good.


During the summer of 2005, I went on two tours to support my short story collection Barney’s Crew. A brutal heat wave hit the northeastern U.S. Joe Meno, Mickey Hess, and I did a reading in the loft of a Pittsburgh bookstore. It was about a 105 degrees. No one bought a book from any of us. The next night, we read in New York City. It was so hot inside the art gallery that we decided to take the reading outside. I went first. It was New York City: loud, hot, smelly. An ambulance raced down the street, only to be blocked by a double-parked car. I stood on the sidewalk for three minutes, mid-story, waiting for the parking violator to move his car so that I could be heard over the blaring horn and sirens of the ambulance. In Boston, two people showed up to our reading. That’s it. Just two. In Montreal, after another hot night of readings, the drunken owner of gallery where we did the reading told me that I needed a shtick. He told Mickey to try to incorporate more props into his reading. Mickey and I went across the street and got drunk.

The next morning, I lay in the back seat of a rented Toyota Echo, wallowing in the hangover brought on by those four readings and a tour that was turning into a bummer. I felt bad for bringing Mickey and Joe into this mess. I felt bad for the tens of thousands of miles I’d traveled and the hundreds of readings in dozens of cities. I felt bad about the wall of apathy and silence that greeted my new book. I felt bad for everything.

But self-pity is the lazy indulgence of emo kids. I needed to snap out of it. I listened to Mickey and Joe, who seemed undaunted. They talked about writing, their new projects, and what their favorite writers did that worked. As I eavesdropped, it occurred to me that the one person who could pull me out of this malaise was Danny McGregor, the hero (or anti-hero) of Crazy Broads. I went searching through the alleyways of my brain, hoping to find him.

He was there.


When I got home from that tour, I started working with Danny again. I wrote every morning for five or six hours, using the same basic plot and characters from Crazy Broads, but writing a whole new novel. I didn’t even dig out my old copy of Crazy Broads. Why should I? It sucked.

Within a couple of months, I had the rough draft of a whole new novel. And this one, I liked.

Within a couple of years, I’d gone through a dozen revisions, sold the novel to Manic D Press, worked with the editor there to clean things up even more, scrapped chapters and added chapters, and read through everything one last time down here in Mexico.

And now, here I am. It’s late May, 2007. I’m ready to say goodbye to the writing of Train Wreck Girl, ready to hand her over to my publisher, to printers, and to you. It’s an Annie Hall kind of break up. I wish her the best. I’m better for the time we spent together. But, as the sun burns away the fog and the panorama of Mexican wine country opens into another day, I’m ready to move on.


Author’s note: This is the thirteenth chapter to a collection of Razorcake columns I wrote.  It originally ran in Razorcake #44.  For more information about the collection, read this post.

Deleted Scenes, Part 1

TVs_at_Henry_Miller_LibraryI always like checking out the deleted scenes when I rent DVDs.  They’re like a little world unto themselves, not quite fitting into the world of the film, but worth too much to leave on the cutting room floor.  I like to think about the choices directors (and all the people with power over directors) make.

I also know that, when I write a novel, I cut more than I keep.  Most of what I cut deserves to be lost.  Everyone has bad days.  The same goes for me when I’m writing.

There’s also stuff that I like, but it gets cut anyway.  Usually these cuts come down to plot or pacing issues.  Usually, I save these excised chapters and do nothing with them.

Recently, a buddy of mine named Kevin Dunn read Madhouse Fog.  He also read the Razorcake column where I talk about writing Madhouse Fog.  In the column, I mention one of these excised chapters.  Kevin asked if he could read it.  I thought, why not?

And, if Kevin gets to read it, why not let everyone?

So below is a PDF of the original chapter 19.  At the last minute, my editor at Manic D Press asked me to cut this chapter.  She felt that it was too long and it deviated from the plot of the book.  I could see her point.  I’d inserted this chapter and taken it out a few times while working on the book.  I, myself, wasn’t sure that it belonged.  So, when Jennifer asked me to cut it, I agreed.

Still, I think it’s kinda cool.  You can check it out for yourself by clicking the link below:

Excised chapter 19.

Reflections on the Writing of Madhouse Fog, Part 4

To celebrate the release of my forthcoming novel, I’m posting a series of short pieces about writing the novel.  This series is meant to address the questions people tend to ask me about the writing process, the inspiration behind my novels, and the other writers who’ve influenced me.  Here’s the fourth one.

Foggy Ventura 4

My wife was working in a psych hospital when I wrote the first draft of Madhouse Fog.  She’d started the summer before I started writing.  On Tuesdays, the hospital cafeteria had a baked chicken special that my wife loved, so I’d come onto hospital grounds and eat lunch with her.  We ate together there several times before the summer ended and I started teaching on Tuesdays.

Of course, there aren’t separate cafeterias for patients and staff.  When I ate lunch with my wife, I also ate with the patients.  If I’m not mistaken, the patients worked in the cafeteria and prepared the food.

My wife also took me on a tour of the hospital once.  She used her key fob to get me into all the different buildings housing patients who ranged from very low functioning to very high functioning.  A lot of the patients came in and out of the hospital for a very short time: typically seventy-two hours.  Seventy-two hours is the length of a state-sponsored involuntary hold.  If you attempt suicide or otherwise demonstrate that your psychological health is a danger to yourself or others, you can get a seventy-two hour stay at this hospital.  Because most of the patients were there for such a short time, the staff didn’t get to know them very well.  Because most of the patients I saw were high-functioning and because they wore their regular clothes, they looked more or less like the crowd at the county fair.  In fact, I’ve seen more bizarre behavior at the county fair than I saw in my trips to the psych hospital.  To be honest, I couldn’t really tell who was a patient and who was staff without looking for ID badges.

The tour my wife gave me was brief.  For one thing, it was unauthorized.  No one really batted an eye.  I guess unauthorized tours of the psych hospital aren’t that uncommon.  But my wife didn’t want to get fired and I didn’t want to get her fired, so we kept things to a minimum.  Plus, at the time, I was working on the novel Train Wreck Girl, which maybe has some characters who could’ve done with thirty days at this hospital, but didn’t focus on these issues.

In January of 2007, when I first started writing Madhouse Fog, I called one of my wife’s supervisors, Dr. Randy Wood.  I arranged for an authorized tour of the hospital.  Dr. Wood took his time.  He showed me everything.  We got to talking.  I told him I worked at Channel Islands.  He said he’d worked there when it was the Camarillo State Mental Hospital.  We took a seat in a conference room and he told me stories about the old hospital for forty-five minutes.  The guy is a hell of a storyteller.

Did I steal some of those stories for Madhouse Fog?

Yes I did.

My visits to the psych hospital taught me a couple of things about writing a novel set in a psych hospital.  First, it taught me that patients aren’t a spectacle.  Movies that are set in psych hospitals always have crazy patients running around screaming, “Feces!” or otherwise bouncing off the walls.  In general, these actors act like someone you would find in the early morning hours of a bar where a coke dealer operates rather than someone with a mental illness.  Most of the patients I saw at the psych hospital weren’t crazy.  They were mentally ill.  The more severe the mental illness, the more drugs they were on, the more sedentary they were.  Most of the patients looked sad or tired or like they’d learned to mask their pain.  Certainly, the occasional patient does act up and need to be restrained.  This does happen regularly, but not regularly enough for me to witness it on several chance visits.

In general, though, patients at a psych hospital are nothing to gawk at.  They’re about as remarkable as patrons in a restaurant or shoppers in a mall.  If I really wanted to see mental illness, I wouldn’t have to drive up to the psych hospital to do it.  I could walk a few blocks to the park across from the post office.  There’s probably a gathering of homeless people putting their mental illness on display right now.  It’s a sight that we, as a culture, have chosen to ignore.  In fiction, we can’t treat it realistically or our realistic portrayals will be likewise ignored.  I would have to take a different approach with the novel.

To be honest, I’d never really considered writing a novel about mental illness or patients in a psych hospital.  I’d certainly never considered writing one in which those patients are a spectacle.  There’s something cruel about that.  Also, it’s been done before.  Cervantes did it so well with Don Quixote that, try as imitators might, it’ll never be matched.  No novel will ever be as popular or influential as Don Quixote has been.  I can only honorably bow to Cervantes, then walk down a different path.

I was thinking about Don Quixote when I wrote Madhouse Fog.  I was teaching Cervantes in one of my lit courses.  And while there is a cruel kind of giggling that occurs when I read about the characters tormenting the delusional don, I recognize that that’s not where the power of the novel comes in.  The real power of Don Quixote is the creeping fear we feel when we’re around a delusional disorder, the fear that the other person might not be the one with the delusions.  And now that we live in such a quixotic world, now that our concept of the world is built so much on fiction, now that we live in an economic system that is propelled by fiction (the fiction that bottled water—tap water from Jersey wrapped in a petroleum by-product—is safe and clean to drink, the fiction that cars are freedom), how can we feel any sense of a non-fictional world?

Exploring those questions was so much more compelling to me than gawking at mental illness would’ve been.

Reading with James Jay

I did my first reading from Madhouse Fog on April 25.  It was kind of a pre-release event.  James Jay joined me in this reading.  It must have been somewhere between the twentieth and fiftieth time I’ve done a reading with him.  For various reasons, each one seems different.

When did I first do a reading with James Jay?  I don’t know.  It probably would’ve been back in Flagstaff, somewhere around late 1994 and early 1995.  I seem to remember a basement space called the Difference Machine hosting some readings.  Did we team up there?  Was it at that other weird art space near the brewery on Beaver Street?  Our first reading together could’ve been either, neither, or both.

James Jay teamed up with me when I did a Drinks for the Little Guy reading at Bookman’s in Flagstaff in 1999.  Or maybe he didn’t.  Maybe he just booked the reading and rustled up the crowd.  I know we did Bookman’s together when Glue & Ink Rebellion came out.  I read with him at the book release events for both of his books.  He joined me on a West Coast tour to support my short story collection Barney’s Crew.

We’ve teamed up to do readings in packed theaters for big time events, in empty record stores and sweaty art galleries and the most crowded bookstore in Seattle one summer night nearly a decade ago.

This time, he joined me in the science lecture hall on the campus of CSUCI.  He was more of the big time guy than me, even though I was the one with the new book.  My students had been studying his collection The Journeymen in their writing class.  They’d spent several hours discussing his poems.  They’d written essays on his work.  Now, they were seeing him live.

I couldn’t pick a better writer to be upstaged by.

Reflections on the Writing of Madhouse Fog, Part 2.

To celebrate the release of my forthcoming novel, I’m posting a series of short pieces about writing the novel.  This series is meant to address the questions people tend to ask me about the writing process, the inspiration behind my novels, and the other writers who’ve influenced me.  Here’s the second one.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMy workplace had a lot to do with the setting for Madhouse Fog.  It’s an old madhouse.  Sometimes, it would drive me a little mad.

I actually showed up late for my job interview.  I was on campus with plenty of time.  My interview was scheduled to be in a room in a building called Bell Tower West.  I went to the Bell Tower building and I could tell I was in the right place because I saw the actual bell tower.  I walked around that building for ten minutes trying to figure out why the numbers of the rooms weren’t exactly sequential and why the room number I had for my meeting wasn’t close to the room numbers I was seeing.  I was afraid I’d actually miss the interview.  Luckily, one of the interviewers was running late.  I didn’t know who he was, but I stopped him in the hall and asked for directions.  He introduced himself and walked me to the interview.  I was only a couple of minutes late, but I walked in with my alibi.

At the end of the interview, the woman in charge asked me if I had any questions.  I had the typical responses that I’d learned to ask at all job interviews.  They gave me the typical answers to those questions.  Then, I asked a genuine question.  I said, “If this is a brand new university,” which it was; it had only been in operation for about a year at the time, “why are the buildings so old?  What was this place before it was a university?”

The three-person panel looked at each other and smiled.  They all knew something good and seemed unsure whether or not to share it with me.  Finally, one of them said, “It was a nuthouse.”

I guess I looked too confused, so another interviewer clarified matters for me.  She said, “These are the old grounds for the Camarillo State Mental Hospital.”

I laughed.  It was literally a nuthouse.  I knew I should’ve stayed focused on the interview, but all I could think was, there’s a novel here.

The campus at Channel Islands doesn’t seem like a nuthouse anymore.  It’s largely renovated.  Most of the more bizarre artifacts of the hospital have been torn down and replaced with something else.  Either that, or they’re inaccessible.  During my first few years teaching there, though, the relics of the madhouse surrounded me.

An old bowling alley still sits on campus.  It’s tiny and dusty and only two lanes wide.  You can stand on a bench and squint through a dirty, barred window and barely see the old warped-wood lanes.  They’re gone now, but I seem to remember, years ago, you could still see a few balls hanging around, hard chairs and scoring tables.

Underneath the old administration building which is now the library was the former hospital morgue.  Some students claim that the morgue is still there.  It’s not.  I was on campus the day builders tore down the old administration building.  It was an incredible structure.  Wrecking balls pummeled the roof, and the roof barely gave way.  I had the sense that, untouched, the hospital administration building would have stood on those grounds for centuries.  Maybe the new library will.  It’s pretty well built, too.  Like the old admin building, the new library is a beautiful structure.  I don’t mind tearing one of them down to build the other.  I spend a lot of time over in that library now.  I spent almost no time in the old admin building, mostly because it was always locked and I had no business there.  Supposedly, there were all kinds of crazy rooms in the building.  When the hospital was around, they had their own courtroom where a judge sat to try crimes committed on the grounds.  Apparently, the courtroom went down with the morgue and the rest of the admin building.  The courtroom was in an early version of Madhouse Fog.  It didn’t withstand the wrecking ball of my revisions.

On the day the old administration building came down, I stood next to a woman from personnel.  She started crying.  She told me, “I can’t watch this.”  She kept watching for a few more whacks of the wrecking ball, then said, “I can’t watch this,” again and left.  Part of me empathized; part of me saw the other side of the story.  Sad to see the old admin building go, but this was a university, not a museum.  Life goes on.

There used to be an outdoor stage on campus, too.  A small concert shell.  It was in the north quad.  It stuck around until the summer of 2011, when progress took it down.  I didn’t see it come down.  I don’t know why it did.  I hope for structural reasons.  I hope it was just structurally unsound.  Otherwise, it would’ve been a great place for outdoor performances.  Back around the time when I was writing the first draft of the novel, the student government brought in some manufactured “indie” rock band to play the concert shell.  I don’t remember who they were.  I’m sure I could find out, if I cared enough.

There was also a hallway of murals on campus.  I think that came down with all the recent North Hall renovations.

The coolest artifacts were right around the corner from my office on campus.  When I wrote the first draft of Madhouse, my office was in a building called Malibu Hall.  In its previous life, Malibu Hall was the center of worship on hospital grounds.  To the west of my office was the Protestant chapel.  We still hold events in this room.  It still feels a bit like a church.  Behind my office was the Jewish temple.  That was turned into classrooms for the music department.  I think they still use it for that.  To the east of my office was the old Catholic church.  The Performing Arts program uses this room now for classes and plays.  I saw a play about the Donner Party in the old Catholic church a few semesters back.  Recently, Performing Arts put on a presentation of Cabaret in the old church.  I should’ve gone to savor the irony, but I’m just not a fan of musicals.  In the back of the church were the old confessionals.  They were empty when I started writing Madhouse.  A couple of times, I went over and checked them out, my Catholic childhood itching me like a phantom limb.  Now the confessionals are used as closets for Performing Arts junk.

The confessionals and the courthouse ended up on the chopping block of the novel.  The outdoor stage, the hall of murals, and the bowling alley survived, though I bastardized them.  The things from the old psych hospital days that survived the most in my novel were the stories I heard from old employees.  But that’s a whole other column.

Reflections on the Writing of Madhouse Fog, Part 1

To celebrate the release of my forthcoming novel, I’m posting a series of short pieces about writing the novel.  This series is meant to address the questions people tend to ask me about the writing process, the inspiration behind my novels, and the other writers who’ve influenced me.  Here’s the first one.Foggy Ventura 1

I never enjoyed writing like I enjoyed writing Madhouse Fog.  I set it up to be a liberating experience, a novel written mostly for fun, and that’s how that first draft felt.

I started writing it in January of 2007.  It was a time of limbo in my life.  In November of 2006, Manic D Press had agreed to publish Train Wreck Girl.  When I’d talked over publishing schedules with Jennifer at Manic D, we’d decided that the book would come out in the summer of 2008.  It was too late for the book to come out in the summer of 2007, and I could only tour during summers.  So that novel was written, sold, and sitting on ice for a year.  I’d also decided to go back to graduate school to pursue a Ph.D.  All of my applications were submitted.  There was nothing for me to do but wait on those.  My teaching schedule was hectic that semester, as it is every semester, but I didn’t have to be on campus on Mondays or Wednesdays.  Writing on novel on those days seemed like a good idea.

I wanted to do something different, too.  Before I had an idea of what I wanted to do, I had an idea of what I didn’t want to do.  Specifically, there were two things I wanted to avoid.  First, when I wrote Train Wreck Girl, I had an outline.  I had a few of them, actually.  I wrote the bulk of that novel in the summer of 2005 and I followed an outline pretty closely.  In the summer of 2006, I decided that the outline made the ending too predictable and serious changes had to be made.  I wrote a new outline and rewrote the second and third two-thirds of the novel.  When I got to the end this time, it occurred to me that, if I were the main character, I would act differently in that last chapter.  I broke from the outline and did what felt organic.  I thought it strengthened the novel.  I told myself, “That’s it.  No more outlines.”  With Madhouse Fog, I figured I’d take it all the way in that direction.  Not only would I write without an outline, but I’d write without a clear idea of what was supposed to happen.

The second thing I wanted to avoid was writing for an audience.  Any audience.  I’d been writing for Razorcake for six years by then, and for Flipside for five years prior to that.  I’d published hundreds of pieces in punk rock zines.  I felt I knew my audience and wrote in a way that was very much tailored to fit that audience.  There’s something comforting in that.  I didn’t necessarily want to give that up.  I’d keep writing in that style for Razorcake.  I just felt like, with this novel, I wanted to expand beyond that.

At the time, I couldn’t shake the nagging feeling that a gulf existed between the novels I wrote and the novels I loved to read the most.  Then (as now), if I were asked to name my favorite author, I couldn’t do it.  If I were asked to name my favorite two authors, I wouldn’t hesitate.  Haruki Murakami and Thomas Pynchon.  At the time, I’d read everything published by Thomas Pynchon and everything by Murakami that had been translated into English.

I asked myself, what if I could write my own Murakami novel?

Well, first I knew that I couldn’t.  My voice is my voice.  No matter what I think I’m doing when I write fiction, no matter how different I think the main characters are from me, they always talk just like I talk.  I think that’s a good thing.  I like the way I talk.  I’ve spent decades fostering this voice.  I don’t want to lose it.  And, luckily, I couldn’t lose it if I wanted to.  So if I tried to write my own Murakami novel, the first thing I knew was that it would really be a Sean Carswell novel.  Just as Drinks for the Little Guy was supposed to be my rendition of Tortilla Flat and no one picked up on that (except for Bob, the former drummer for the band Tiltwheel); just as Train Wreck Girl was my version of Chester Himes’ A Rage in Harlem and not even Bob picked up on that, this would be my version of Murakami knowing full well that it wasn’t going to be that much like Murakami.

But I also knew a lot about Murakami’s process.  I’d read about him writing his first couple of novels while standing at his kitchen counter after work.  He’d written his third novel, A Wild Sheep Chase, without any sense of where the novel was going.  Reading the first half of that book, it’s clear to me that he’s trying to find his plot and that his unnamed narrator is groping for a story to situate himself in.  I figured I could start there.

I started working on it the week before the semester began, somewhere mid-January, 2007.  I had a clear idea of where I wasn’t going to go with the book, but no clear idea of where I was going to go.  I also had no pressure.  The big events of my life were nestled in the past or waiting for me in the future.  I had this nice little pocket of time that was just for me.

I started typing and hoped it would turn into writing.

Book Trailer

There’s a new trailer for my upcoming novel.  You can watch it, then learn how it came about.

The Making of a Trailer

Book trailers are strange beasts.  I’d never done one before.  And, to be honest, a couple of my books are older than the tradition of book trailers.  I wasn’t planning on doing one for Madhouse Fog, but a few things fell into place.

First, I was down at Razorcake HQ one day.  Most people go to the HQ to work.  I go to hang out and make sure no work is getting done.  While I was hanging out, I met a filmmaker named Jennifer Swann.  She was there to do some video editing for the Razorcake YouTube page.  She and I got to talking.  I asked if she’d ever done a book trailer.  She’d never heard of them.  I showed her a couple, then asked if she was interested in making one.  She said, “Sure.”

I wrote the narration and tried to narrate it myself.  It didn’t sound right.  My voice didn’t sound like the voice I’d imagined for the narrator of the novel.  When I wrote the book, I didn’t have anyone’s voice in mind.  I just knew that the narrator didn’t sound like me.  I talked it over with my wife.  She suggested that I rope a friend into doing it.  I did.  I fed my buddy John Guelcher three beers and made him read the same page into a microphone seven or eight times.  I took the best parts from each reading and mixed them into one file.

I’d also been playing music with some friends who live locally.  They were more expensive.  I had to give them both beer and whiskey.  We hung out one Saturday, during which I taught them the song that I wanted them to play, we practiced it, and we recorded it.   Like John’s recording, our recording went through seven or eight takes.  My buddy Doug mixed those eight takes into one solid one.  He added John’s narration on the top.

We gave this all to Jennifer, and she put together the footage.

And so I learned this: if you want to put together a DIY book trailer, you have to have a lot of talented friends who will tilt windmills with you.

Hollywood Pretty

sean_illo_39_by_brad_beshawIn the movie The Hours, Nicole Kidman as Virginia Woolf walks halfway down her stairs and pauses.  Inspiration has struck.  She tells her husband that she believes she has the first line of a novel.  The film cuts to her sitting comfortable in a writing chair among the soft morning light and using her favorite pen on lovely paper to construct what becomes the word-for-word first sentence of Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway.

I like this scene because it’s absurd.  It’s absolutely nothing like the real life process of writing.  Novels are inspired, sure, but that inspiration doesn’t visit us from up high like a muse or like God handing down the fifteen commandments to Moses*.  Instead, novels linger in our imagination for days or months or years until we finally decide it’s time to let them live outside our imagination.

When I pause to think I have the perfect first sentence, it doesn’t emerge as a complete sentence.  Like everyone, I have ideas that I have to translate into words, and translations evolve from the idea to the idea’s representation on the page.

And writing novels isn’t scenic and softly lit.  It’s a daily process of hammering out a few words, paragraphs, or pages until, several months later, you actually have something.  Then there are the years of revision.  The first sentences of every novel I’ve written came at least a year after the original draft of the novel was complete.  They are all revisions.  The first sentence of Madhouse Fog was one of the last things I wrote.

Also, Virginia Woolf looked nothing like Nicole Kidman, and the first sentence of Mrs. Dalloway isn’t that cool.

Then again, I’m a very different writer from Virginia Woolf.  Woolf said that writers need to have a room of one’s own and a monthly stipend that allows one to focus solely on writing.  I still don’t have either of those things.  And it’s okay.  Charles Bukowski said something like, “No writer who could write worth a damn could write in peace.”  I believe in that.  Not because it’s necessarily true.  Just because it’s a better representation of the world I live in.

So in honor of these thoughts, I want to include a column that I wrote for Razorcake back in 2007.  It’s about writing the first draft of Drinks for the Little Guy.  I think it’s an honest representation of what writing a first novel was like for me.  It’s definitely not pretty like a Hollywood movie.

Here’s a link to download the PDF of the column: Carswell_Column_Razorcake_39

*Perhaps you were thinking there were only ten commandments.  You forget that God handed Moses fifteen, and he dropped the stone tablet with the first ten.  At least that’s the way Mel Brooks and I remember it.